About Nelson Smith

Nelson Smith has received numerous awards for his work as a painter, performance and sound artist. His work is included in many significant public and private collections including the Museum of Modern Art’s Artist Book Archive and the Detroit Institute of Arts. Smith’s painting is known for schematic languages integrated with representational object relationships. In recent years his painting has investigated, through his schematics, the expressive nature of landscape, remix process in relation to landscape traditions, and alternative approaches to portraiture. Composed and performed for his own experimental theater productions, his sound designs and scores have also been commissioned for the films and performance works of Sue Carman-Vian, among others. His theatrical and installation works have been presented in a variety of theater and performance spaces in Detroit, New York, and Cleveland. He earned his MFA in painting from Cranbrook Academy of Art, BA from the College of Wooster, and studies in New York with artist Agnes Denes. He teaches painting and drawing at Kansas State University.

The Belated Tour

The image above is a composite photo of the scenic vista from the rear sunroom at Ballinglen. To the right, sits a stone church and some ancient stone walls and structures. At the center, just beyond the trees one can often see the ocean and Ballycastle beach.

I have had several requests to post some photos of my living and working environment during the residency. It is pretty funny that this never occurred to me. In going through my photos, I have realized that, from an outside observer, my photo choices might seem curious. As tourist photos they are odd in that they usually include no sky. The majority of my images are landscape photos where, if the sky appears at all, it is a sliver at the top of the frame. To someone not familiar with my recent work, these photos might not make much sense. I have many (hundreds?) of photos of the landscapes that I have encountered – from these I have either completed onsite sketches or I will use them for future works. The skies are often quite incredible in this region, but my interest in creating these new paintings has been on the landforms and peat bogs. Here are three examples:

This photo shows the charming Ballinglen cottage I was provided. The ocean is in the distance and some spirited cows graze just beyond the fence. I wasn’t kidding about the dramatic skies.

On a hike, not far from downtown Ballycastle, I photographed this shot of Down Patrick Head on the right of the horizon.

The Ballinglen facility is a re-purposed courthouse. The exquisitely designed building includes a complete print studio, a library, and a gallery in addition to the artist-in-residence studios and offices. The (sometimes rare) sunlight shines on my studio window in the upper left of the photo.

My studio is directly across from Polke’s store. As I worked, I documented the protective movements of their dog Wisa (ultimately diagrammed in one of the paintings), but also the ever-important Guinness van!

This is the street in front of Ballinglen including Mary’s Cottage café on the far right. The best scones on the planet earth.

The same stretch of street periodically is also a cow trail.

Healy’s Pub presents a weekly jam-session of local musicians and provided a lovely Guinness-filled Thanksgiving concert for us American guests. On a side note, the Smithwick’s beer is brewed in nearby Ballina.

The tour would be incomplete without the standard sheep on the road shot. Let me say that the sheep have been a constant inspiration for me – ultimately ending up in my “Viconian Sheep” diagram.

And finally, my Ballinglen studio space on the first day of the residency and then in the last days of the residency.


Some First Painting Compositions

The images above represent two works-in-progress. These compositions are nearly complete in that they contain most of the primary vocabulary elements. At this point the object renderings are still sketchy. I will be doing quite a lot of painting to refine and work the dynamics of the object vocabulary as well as the primary and secondary diagrams, and the ground. These might remain fairly similar to where they are right now, or they could be radically altered. We’ll see.

The “Real” Inner Workings of a Guinness Can, or “Finnegans Wake” as a Model for Layering

The diagram, above left, is my interpretation of the miracle Guinness can. For non-beer drinkers, you should be informed that this invention made it possible to enjoy this fine stout without having to walk into a pub and order it on draft. My version includes the mythological Finn MacCool’s thumb. According to legend, Finn would suck his thumb to tap the great knowledge that was needed to vanquish his enemies. It seems right that this thumb would be key to providing the great stout – and thus all the knowledge a great stout can provide – to the world, in a can.

Finn MacCool is a prominent character in Irish mythology.  I discovered him in a hybrid form in James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. His character is one layer for the many-layered hero of the book. I have referred to my on-going interest in Joyce’s Finnegans Wake already in this blog [ you can scroll down and find my post relating him to Alexandre Hogue’s Mother Earth Laid Bare ]. For me, the book is a model for embedding multiple ideas – ideas that all reinforce each other in a kind of global consciousness – into a simultaneous experience. Those who have attempted to read the Wake are often intimidated by its challenging prose, but I will assure that its pleasures abound if you let it wash over you. In this book, you are rewarded for reading each sentence multiple times – finding many different threads emerge with each reading.

The center image is my first try at layering it with my land schematic, and on the right is the original landscape sketch. The diagram of the Guinness can is ultimately a layer in a painting, one of several. I am seeking to find my own threads that go deeper. Hopefully, to whatever degree – like the Wake – you will be rewarded for each viewing. Or, perhaps it is just like accessing Finn’s thumb by popping that tab of the miracle aluminum can of stout.

Ireland Pinwall

The image above, of my “pinwall” or idea wall, represents the accumulation of sketches from my time in Ireland – about 70 percent (some sketches are still in my sketchbook). These are the sketches that might find, or have found, their way into a painting at this point. Somehow, seeing them all together creates added potential for current or future pieces. Many of these drawings might be recognizable from earlier posts.

The pinwall idea isn’t new or limited to painting. I have noticed it in use with writer friends developing narratives, from my days working on Chevrolet advertising at Campbell-Ewald, web designers use it to figure out navigation, and architects collect reference forms or images and diagrams of various sites. Theater artists assemble all the possible visuals associated with a performance including settings, wall patterns, costumes, lighting possibilities, etc. much in the same way an interior designer assembles all the details of a possible interior space. The only creative discipline that I haven’t noticed using this as a part of their method are choreographers. I think if I hung around choreographers more often I might discover that they use it also.


TULCA Festival, Galway

I took a break from the studio to travel to Galway and check out the final week of the TULCA Festival of Visual Arts 2011. TULCA is an annual visual art festival that involves institutional and non-traditional art sites across the whole city of Galway. This is definitely one of the best models I’ve seen for presenting an ambitious international curatorial project with institutional collaborations across a large region.

Curated by Megs Morley, and themed “After The Fall,” there is a real emphasis on video and photography in works that directly address social issues and community. Most of the works address some aspect of the financial crisis of the last few years or a sub-text of that crisis, often with post-apocalyptic themes. There is not much in the way of more traditional disciplines like painting and sculpture represented. I wonder if the accessibility and portability of video, sound, and photography (less expensive than shipping large paintings or sculpture for example) makes an international festival like this more feasible.

Unfortunately, due to time constraints, I was not able to see the whole festival. Some of the sound artist events, for example, had come and gone and the open studios event on Saturday was over-whelming to cover comprehensively. Many of the artists presented lectures or interview events and there were several impressive lectures (including Frances Whitehead) that happened in the weeks prior to my visit.

A couple of the standouts of the work that I did see were both exhibited at the Galway Arts Centre. Jesse Jones, a Dublin-based artist, presented a film titled Against the Realm of the Absolute. If you know me, it shouldn’t be a surprise that I would be excited by a piece that includes a Scottish Megaphone Choir (more on them here: http://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Megaphone-Choir/251852458158339?v=info). Artist video and film works often struggle to compete with rich visual expectations (and budgets) set by feature films. This is not true in Jones’ piece. It is visually stunning with dynamic compositions and wonderfully lit imagery. If there is one quibble, it would be the voice-over. It might have been intended for the voice-over to integrate with the music score. This was the case some of the time, but over the whole piece it ultimately became monotonous. This is the best link I could find for Jesse Jones: http://ica.org.uk/16980.twl

The other artist whose work I found really interesting is Oswaldo Ruiz, an artist from Monterrey, Mexico. Ruiz photographs the remains of domiciles where occupants were forced to leave for a variety of political and climate-related reasons. The politics of the works are sublimely embedded in very theatrical images where the lighting effectively isolates the homes and emphasizes the skeletal emptiness of the spaces. More about Ruiz: http://www.oswaldoruiz.com/

One of the features of TULCA is the celebration of artist studio communities. Galway has a number of art studio buildings and the festival included an open studios day on the final Saturday. I will provide links below that will most closely reflect the open-studio process and you can see for yourself.http://www.engageartstudios.com/artists.htm  and/orhttp://www.artspacegalway.com/artists.asp

I was able to attend the closing party headlined by Kilkenny group Rarely Seen Above Ground. RSAG is essentially Jeremy Hickey performing live percussion accompanied by projected video and pre-recorded sound layers of Jeremy Hickey playing a myriad of instruments. He pulled it off pretty well – influenced, perhaps by the propulsive bass lines of LCD Soundsystem.

TULCA is an inspiring example of how curatorial and entrepreneurial skills collide to create really cohesive – and fun – idea-based festivals. I recommend for you to check out the whole TULCA Festival online: http://www.tulca.ie/

Mayo Artists Network

On November 21st I was able to attend a meeting of the Mayo Artists Network at the Linenhall Arts Centre in Castlebar, County North Mayo. I was impressed with the apparent cohesiveness of this group, which was meeting for only the second time and representing a large geographic region of very diverse artists.

The Network attempts to address artists of the region who feel isolated from the cultural centers of Ireland. This event had me recalling my own attempts to organize artists in Detroit (through the Contemporary Art Institute of Detroit in particular). I am aware of the difficulties involved, and this group certainly seems like they are on the right track.

The two presentations given at the meeting represent two different ways to embed art practice into community. Amanda Rice presented her experience working with the artist collective, Cork Contemporary Projects (www.corkcontemporaryprojects.weebly.com). Her experiences, and the projects of the group, provide an excellent model for how an artist collective begins and evolves. What was not clear is how a collective like this survives when jobs, family, and individual careers begin to tug the group apart geographically.

Artist and independent curator, Michele Horrigan single-handedly invents curatorial projects and invitational residencies in and around her small village of Askeaton in County Limerick. Her residency program, Welcome to the Neighborhood, began from her own initiative, small government grant, and local donations, and has grown to include a locally supportive board of directors. Her brain-child, Askeaton Contemporary Arts manages an annual international artist residency and production program. They have commissioned over thirty artists projects in direct relationship to the town of Askeaton since 2006. Their website will do more than I can do here to share the energy and inventiveness of the programming. Several examples include a sculptor subversively “planting” sculpture in niches around the village, an interactive environmental installation in the town community center, and an artist-run pirate radio station where interviews with the people of the town are broadcast locally on the radio. More on Askeaton Contemporary Arts: http://www.askeatonarts.com

The coordinator for the Mayo Artists Network is artist John McHugh. Marie Farrell, director of the Linenhall Arts Centre was the meeting host. McHugh, an artist working in Achill Island, is also the director of CustomHouse in Westport, a subject for a future posting.



Ash Brush for the Peat Fireplace

The ash brush, above, is another recent addition to the object vocabulary I am developing on my pinwall. I have sketched both the brush and the dustpan of the set. Both have Irish iconography on the handle and make them unique. I discovered these as I was cleaning up after a peat fire in the fire stove in my cottage. I may have mentioned previously that peat is burned here as fuel and for heat. Because of the weather in Ireland, the vegetation never is able to totally decompose – it evolves into peat. Peat is essentially rotted vegetation that has built up on the landscape here for years.

I am in the slow process of developing the compositions for these paintings. I do multiple versions, with different conceptual premises. One way to view how the vocabulary objects and schematic diagrams develop is to look at my previous works in the painting section of my website. I will try to post some compositions as they solidify.

Ballinglen Artist Hilary Elmes

One of the first artists I encountered at Ballinglen is Hilary Elmes, a painter from the Dublin area. Her paintings are a very rich painterly experience, inspired by the cliffs of the northern Atlantic coast. You can see the coast in the forms that dominate her paintings – conveying the essential forms and relationships you encounter here. She aggressively walked the cliffs finding some particularly interesting sites. These pieces began in watercolor and are then covered with encaustic wax. Her final step is to iron the work to lift much of the wax from the surface.

The more you understand how the land formed here the more Hilary’s process resonates. I am definitely speaking outside of my expertise when describing the land formation here, but I will refer to the Ce’ide Fields website [ here ] which might give the most accurate examples. The peat-bog, in a way, seals a previous layer of the earth. Earlier layers, and perhaps generations, are exposed as the peat is removed (it is burned for fuel). Many megalithic tombs have been uncovered as a result of harvesting the peat.

My photos don’t do justice to the richness of surface in the work.

Schematic Process

In developing my schematics, I try to work with the landscape directly. It has been difficult with rain and wind here to work directly in the landscape, but this is one such piece. I began with a quick sketch on-site and followed with a photo for further reference. I created the schematic in the studio afterward. In many of the diagrammatic pieces I have been working on, I created the schematic right onto the original sketch. In this example I worked on tracing paper to preserve the original sketch. The image above reads counter-clockwise: from photo reference to the first painted rendering on oak veneer.

Finn MacCool Meets Mother Earth Laid Bare

I had the great opportunity to read James Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake” with a group of my friends in Detroit in the late 1990s and early 2000s. I think this group really helped me see the depth and scope of the book that would have been much more difficult, and much less fun on my own. At that time, I never imagined that this revolutionary avant-garde novel would ultimately, for me, be so strongly connected with an Oklahoma landscape painter.

Upon moving to Manhattan, Kansas from Detroit a few years ago my interest in landscape began. This was inspired by the rolling Flint Hills which native Manhattanites encounter almost everyday in contrast to the urban sprawl of Detroit. In researching ways to apply this interest in my paintings, I was fortunate to discover the work of Oklahoma landscape painter Alexandre Hogue. One of his paintings, “Mother Earth Laid Bare,” caught my eye. This painting renders a human female figure embedded into the hills and valleys, ripped of all vegetation. You can view an image of the painting here. My thoughts immediately turned to the “Wake’s” Finn MacCool.

Finn MacCool is a geographic avatar, one of many avatars in the “Wake,” for the main hero of the novel. MacCool is a hybrid mythological giant that lays asleep, embedded deep in the landscape of Dublin. His head is the eastern Howth peninsula on Dublin Bay with his body reclined beneath the city and his feet two mounds in Phoenix Park on the west end of town – MacCool dreams of Irish history and mythology. [ the image above is shot from “James Joyce A-Z,” by Fargnoli and Gillespie, published by Oxford University Press, a valuable resource for anyone trying to tackle Joyce ]

For most of my painting career, I have embedded texts, and now more recently, schematic language into the surfaces of my paintings. Joyce’s Finn MacCool always had fascinated me, but Hogue’s “Mother Earth” was a key visual link for translating the land with my embedded graphic language. Later, I discovered that beyond illustrating the ideas in “Mother Earth,” Hogue was ultimately able to translate that intellect and energy of the land onto the surfaces his later “Big Bend” paintings.

And here I am in Ireland, seeking to translate the dreams of my own Finn MacCool embedded in the landscape – thinking of Irish history and mythology – using the insight of an Oklahoma landscape painter.